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How to avoid revealing too much character history?

How do you show a character has a problem on their mind without going into excessive detail?
In my case this 'problem' is a sub-plot which will tie into the main plot at the end. It's vital to the plot and character but I don't want it revealed completely but my POV character has it on his mind from chapter 1. Basically, he had a very abusive father growing up, who his Mother never had the guts to leave, so both were subjected to his physical and mental abuse. He had a chance to get himself out and he took it. He resented his mother for never protecting him or saving them. He left and she committed suicide, which is a terrible guilt of his, that he failed to see how much she was struggling. He believed he'd moved on with his life at the point my story begins. But after fifteen years he's started receiving letters from his father. He is dying in a care home and wants to see him. He claims in his letter he wants to apologize and make it up to him. My character doesn't know what to do and this brought all his memories back. On top of that he finds himself in charge of someone very similar to his mother which makes everything worse.

I want to suggest this back story without saying too much but since he's the POV character how do you go about that? Thanks for any tips


Hi! This is something I have had to deal with myself in my WIP. I think the thing to remember is that as a writer you aren't obligated to reveal everything that is happening in a character's mind, even if you are writing first person or close third-person limited. We withhold internal dialogue from the reader all the time, every second in fact, because a real-life person is constantly thinking. We don't give all of this to the reader stream-of-consciousness style because it would be impenetrable and boring. Another reason to withhold internal monologue is to build suspense. This is what you want to do.

Just choose which snippets of information you would like the reader to know. Perhaps your character reads the letter and is briefly reminded of something in the past, but he pushes it from his mind. Perhaps he thinks briefly of his father and is distracted. It is perfectly viable not to tell the reader something just because you are in the head of someone who knows it.

A. E. Lowan

Forum Mom
Basically, you just don't. Keep in mind that not everyone thinks about their entire history every day. Most of us think about the situations the day presents us with, which gives you as a writer more control over the narrative. We have a character who has a solid theory about the true nature of another character, but we don't want to get into that for a few more books, so we get a little coy with his narrative. We keep him distracted. He doesn't think too closely about it because he has bigger problems on his mind.


toujours gai, archie
Everything in that post is background. What is the opening scene of the story? Is it the MC receiving the first (or tenth) letter? Is there something else going on in the MC's life and the opeing scene is about that?

Do you have subsequent scenes plotted?

One we have that, then it becomes possible to talk about what in this character's background is affected current action.

K.S. Crooks

You could place the information you want the reader to know in the letter from the father. You could state the "problems" the father had when the son was growing up and leave the reader to wonder. You could state "hurting" each of them and let reader wonder the form. Or directly state the physical violence, though this seems less likely. Once the character reads the letter you can have him remember a certain incident, such as him finding out about his mother's suicide, then have him move onto something else.
It's potentially a bit cliched but you could have the character early on react to something inappropriately and just a hint of the reason why is given - raising all sorts of questions in the reader's mind.

I second that. Makes sure the overreaction is made clear to the reader in a way s/he will not forget. This is what I call napalm. It burns to the bobe and influences future events. It could be a simple event that triggers his response, e.g. he witnesses a father beating his 3-yr old son severely (not an insignificant corrective action)., say in a supermarket, Now yr MC could start crying (male). OR she (MC=female) goes to the father and give him a cookie of his own dough, breaking his jaw or kicking him in his crotch. Don't explain. Let the reader puzzle what drove yr MC to do that. Just a random example. Try to find something fresh that fits yr MC's character and traits.